Kia Race To The MVP Ladder
Kia Race to the MVP Ladder: James Harden leads way as stretch run looms
How Houston finishes out 2016-17 season will help (or harm) high-scoring guard's chance at Maurice Podoloff Trophy
That blockbuster trade deadline-day deal that was going to shake up the entire NBA never came to fruition. Thursday’s deadline passed without any move topping last Sunday’s Sacramento-New Orleans deal that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the Big Easy to team up with Anthony Davis.
So that reset that could have made the final stretch of this regular season even more intriguing will not happen, not on several fronts.
The same favorites going into the All-Star break — the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference — remain. And so does the pecking order at the top of the KIA Race to the MVP Ladder, where Houston Rockets star James Harden holds on to the top spot with the final laps of this season upon us.
While many of his contemporaries had to sweat out the trade deadline, wondering if and when some seismic move might transform their seasons, Harden didn’t have worry.
The Rockets did add Lou Williams in a trade with the Los Angeles Lakers, a move that will boost the chances of Williams snagging the league’s Kia Sixth Man of the Year award. So Harden, the league’s assist leader, has yet another weapon to add to his arsenal as he chases his first MVP award.
Thursday’s blowout of the Davis/Cousins-led Pelicans is just the beginning for Harden and the Rockets, who sit five games ahead of the LA Clippers and firmly entrenched behind Golden State and San Antonio in third spot in the Western Conference.
“We’re all in, we’re definitely committed,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said after the win. “We talked about it today. We’ve just got to tighten some things up defensively, offensively it’s a good start today. Good start.”
Harden, of course, is looking for an even better finish.
He knows what lies ahead in his team’s final three games and has his sights set on the Warriors and that top spot, telling reporters as much from the locker room in New Orleans late Thursday night.
“We have an opportunity, and we want to take advantage of the opportunity,” Harden said. “We’re in that third spot, and we’re trying to get better. We’re trying to continue to get on the same page and make this push. We’ve got  games left to take advantage of the opportunity and win as many games as we can.”
Now to this week’s KIA Race to the MVP Ladder:
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1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Last week: No. 1
That trade for Lou Williams looks particularly good after his wicked debut (27 points, 7-for-11 from deep) in a win over New Orleans. Giving Harden another relentless offensive weapon to unleash on the opposition just isn’t fair. Harden and the Rockets believe they can challenge the Warriors in the West. (26.6 points, 10.8 assists, 8.0 rebounds in his last five games).
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Last week: No. 2
The trade deadline brought some much-needed toughness (Taj Gibson) and additional scoring help (Doug McDermott) for Westbrook, who needs his entire supporting cast ready to go for the season’s stretch run. A fortified bench will be crucial come playoff time in support of Westbrook (34.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 8.4 assists, 2.2 steals in his last five games).
3. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 3
Durant handled the drama surrounding he and Russell Westbrook like the pro that he is, both in Oklahoma City two weeks ago and last weekend in New Orleans at the All-Star Game. Durant is keeping his eyes on the bigger prize, as he should be (25.2 points, 9.0 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.2 blocks, 1.0 steals in his last five games).
4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Last week: No. 4
In his first game after the All-Star break and after the trade deadline, LeBron reminded everyone that the Cavaliers remain the team to beat in the Eastern Conference with a smooth 18-point, 15-assist, 13-rebound triple-double. And that help he’s been looking for could be on the way in the buyout market (24.8 points, 9.2 assists, 6.8 rebounds in his last five games).
5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Last week: No. 5
Leonard went into the All-Star break on a tear, averaging 33 points in his four games heading into New Orleans. He’ll look to stay on that grind as the Spurs get back to business tonight in Los Angeles against the Clippers (10:30 ET, ESPN). No one is focusing on Leonard and the Spurs down the final stretch of this season, which is just the way the most underrated team and star in the league like it (25.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 2.6 steals in his last five games).
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Last week: No. 7
Curry sparked the Warriors’ 50-point outburst in the third quarter as they rallied to blow out the LA Clippers yet again. He shot 6-for-10 from deep on his way to a 35-point, seven-rebound, five-assist, four-steal night against a team that fancied itself a rival before losing to the Warriors for the 10th straight time (21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 5.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals in his last five games).
7. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
Last week: No. 6
The side-eye emoji didn’t work at the trade deadline for Thomas and the Celtics, who went into Thursday in the middle of all the juiciest rumors only to stand pat with the roster they have had all season. That’s still a formidable group heading into the final stanza of this regular season (28.0 points, 5.2 assists, 2.2 rebounds in his last five games).
8. John Wall, Washington Wizards
Last week: No. 8
Wall and the Wizards added the bench help they’d been searching for by acquiring Bojan Bogdanovic and Chris McCullogh from the Brooklyn Nets. Wall and Bradley Beal have the Wizards cranked up and ready to make a serious run in the Eastern Conference playoffs, provided they can integrate their new pieces without issue (19.2 points, 11.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 1.8 steals,1.2 blocks in his last five games).
9. Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz
Last week: No. 10
Now that his first All-Star Game experience is int he rear-view mirror, Hayward can get back to the more important business of helping the Jazz nab homecourt advantage for a first-round playoff series. Getting guard Rodney Hood back from injury tonight against Milwaukee (8 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS)will no doubt aid in that cause. But make no mistake, Hayward has to lead the way from here on out (20.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.2 steals in his last five games).
10. Paul George, Indiana Pacers
Last week: No. 9
George stayed in the trade crosshairs right up until Thursday’s 3 p.m. ET deadline passing without anything going down. He’s made it clear that he wants to get back to the conference final-level play the Pacers made routine a few seasons ago. But as well as he’s played this season, his Pacers are still far off from being elite (16.4 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls; Mike Conley, Memphis Grizzlies; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies; Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
An inside look from an Eastern Conference scout at Nerlens Noel:
“Dallas is a perfect spot for this guy. He’s going to get a chance to work with one of the best coaches in the business in Rick Carlisle. Tyson Chandler played some of his very best basketball under Carlisle and Noel is in that same physical mold. He never really got a chance to show you what he could do in Philly. The injuries and the “process” always got in the way of us really seeing if he’s capable of being a true defensive stopper, or at least a dependable rim protector. There were just way too many competing interests from the time he entered the league until this trade to Dallas for there to be the sort of consistency, in terms of a player development program, that was suited to Noel’s game. And once Joel Embiid finally got his opportunity to hit the floor, it became clear who and what the priority is for the organization. Dallas could be a launching pad for this kid. The sky really is the limit for him with the Mavericks. I honestly love this move for the Mavericks and for Noel. This is a great restart for him and he could end up being a keeper, longterm in a place where they have struggled to stockpile quality young talent over the years.”
Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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